Vanilla Chills

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO VANILLA Ice? Ask the Iceman—who made a name for himself in the early '90s as the Pat Boone of rap—and he lifts his T-shirt to reveal a red-and-black, oval-shaped leaf tattooed just to the right of his belly button. "I got this," he says proudly, "because I've turned over a new leaf."

True, the trademark bleached-blond fade has softened to lank brown locks, the shaved eyebrows are out, and a goatee is in. But more important, at 27, Mr. Ice—who now prefers his given name, Rob Van Winkle—has a new passion (motocross racing), a new business (retailing), a new girlfriend and even a new spiritual quest. "I've been checking out churches—Catholic, Baptist," he says. "I haven't decided on any religion yet. But definitely, God is in my life."

Van Winkle's wake-up call came after a scary July 4, 1994, drug experience—during which he passed out and came to vomiting—left him feeling lucky to be alive. The trauma served to jerk Van Winkle out of what he refers to as "my rut," a period of relentless partying that began when his career started to sputter in late 1991. Coming down from instant fame, he says, he would often stay out till all hours smoking pot and using heroin and Ecstasy. "I was like a zombie," he adds.

During his downslide, Van Winkle got involved with Madonna—an eight-month romance that didn't work out, he says, because "she would change personalities a lot." Although the two remain friends, Van Winkle now regrets posing for her 1992 book Sex alongside an assortment of fetishists. "It kind of cheeses me out," he says, "makes me look like I'm like all the other people in there, a bunch of freaks. I'm no freak."

Freak no, masochist maybe. Van Winkle now takes his lumps on the local pro motocross circuit. "I wish I'd taken up golf, to be honest," he jokes. "It's not as dangerous." Brian Penick, the manager of Fort Lauderdale's Pepsi/Air Dania Motocross Park, praises Van Winkle's toughness. "I've seen the man wipe out, go through a fence, be put in an ambulance and then refuse transport to the hospital," he says. "This is one of the most demanding sports around—you can't fake it."

Van Winkle is fitting in more easily on the motocross track than he did in the black-dominated world of rap music. Of course, it didn't help that his press kit had included a fabricated biography to boost his street credibility. He portrayed himself as having a shadowy past filled with gangs and guns. The truth was far more vanilla. Raised with an older brother and younger sister in Dallas by his mother, Beth Mino, 50, a music teacher, Van Winkle—who won't discuss his father—started his career break-dancing at the local mall. That led to the Dallas club scene, where he was discovered at age 16 by manager Tommy Quan, who in 1990 released Vanilla Ice's single "Ice Ice Baby"—the first rap song to top the Billboard pop chart. His debut album, To the Extreme—which has sold a staggering 18 million copies to date—took off, and his future looked solid as ice.

But then it suddenly melted, and Van Winkle took to the water as a jet-ski racer. In 1994 he released Mind Blowin', an attempt at gangsta rap—complete with a dreadlocks-and-flannel makeover—that met with only modest success, mostly overseas. "He wanted to show that he was real, but nobody cared about him being real," Bill Adler, the author of two rap books, says of the transformation. "It might just be that he had his moment in the sun." Gary Henry, Van Winkle's manager, disagrees: "There's a market out there that wants Vanilla Ice, and wants him in the worst kind of way."

Van Winkle isn't counting on it. While he still sells out concerts in Indonesia and Russia, he won't give up his day job anytime soon. He recently opened 2 the Xtreme, an alternative-sports store on Miami Beach's trendy Lincoln Road that sells everything from jet skis to hang gliders. Although his early success left him in good financial shape, Van Winkle has been unloading remnants of his Ice age. He sold a house in Dallas and is peddling some old jewelry. The home he shares with girlfriend Laura Giarritta, 25—near Gloria Estefan's on Star Island off Miami Beach—is also on the market. Giarritta, a hair stylist and nail artist raised in a strict Catholic home, met Van Winkle in" 1994. "I only know what he tells me," she says of Ice's past. "We both just want to live our lives and be like Christian people should."

Van Winkle says if he never has another hit, that's okay with him. Catching a perfect sunset from the deck of his Star Island home, he adds, "I'm totally the happiest person on earth."

CINDY DAMPIER in Miami

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